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The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

In deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nudged the sun.

The opening of Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road,  beautifully captures a moment of normality at a time in British history that was anything but normal. We’re in the summer of 1981. War has been raging across the Channel for almost four years, millions of men killed or wounded and thousands more traumatised by their experience. Yet on the sands at a resort somewhere along the English coast,  life goes on as usual; children whine about sand chaffing their skin and overweight middle aged couples gather their belongings ready for the trek back to their boarding house evening meal.

Observing them is Billy Prior, a soldier sent home from the front with shellshock so severe it rendered him mute.  Treatment at  Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland under the guidance of psychologist William Rivers has got him to a state where, if not fully recovered. he is given the OK to return to active service.  First he takes a short holiday at the seaside, pays a visits to his finance and engages in as much casual sex as he can manage with whoever happens to be available.

On the strength of the opening chapters of this book I thought (mistakenly as it turned out) that I was in for a reading experience just as good as the first two novels in Pat Barker’s  Regeneration Trilogy. The Ghost Road reconnects us with some of the characters from the two previous novels in that trilogy, in particular Billy Prior and William Rivers. There are fleeting appearances by Wilfred Owen but this mainly happens towards the end of the novel.

While Prior makes his farewell, Rivers is continuing his experimental treatment of soldiers suffering post traumatic disorder and contending with the morality of gluing men together again just so they can be sent back to the line and almost certain death.

The narrative switches between these two men using a melee of techniques, from letters to the diary Prior writes in abandoned farm houses and dug outs and the influenza-induced dreams which take Rivers back to the time he worked with native people in Melanesia, Oceania. These memories are a device to draw attention to the irony that the society that sends their young men into scenes of carnage is the same one that bars the Melanesians from their tradition of headhunting on the grounds the practice is barbarous.

This was the aspect of the novel that didn’t work for me. Barker signposts her ‘political’ points rather too obviously. Rivers we’re told for example experiences “flashes of cross-cultural recognition”  while the episodes of death and burial rituals were too long and belaboured. More than once I found myself checking out, longing to get through these interludes so I could return to the way more interesting experiences of Billy and his troop companions in France.

The final scenes of the novel are powerful evocations of the sense of utter meaningless and futility that found its way into so many of the poems by the soldier poets. But it wasn’t enough for me to feel Ghost Road came anywhere close to the quality of Regeneration. I’m surprised it was the third part of the trilogy that won the Booker Prize rather than the first.

End Notes

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker was published in 1995, following on from Regeneration published in 1991 and The Eye in the Door, published in 1993. The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize in the face of competition from Salman Rushdie (The Moor’s Last Sigh); Tim Winton (The Riders); Justin Cartwright (In Every Face I Meet) and Barry Unsworth (Morality Play). My copy of The Ghost Road was published by Penguin Books.

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